There is no more unlikely success story in the modern history of rock 'n' roll than Primus. In an age of angst-ridden introspection and three-chord
string-bashing, the trio has managed to sell millions of records with odd tales of fishermen, rednecks and weirdos that owe more to William Burroughs than Neil Young. Employing a bass-heavy power trio attack, the trio's new album, "The Brown Album," features more strange character sketches over bizarre, funky grooves -- and will likely sell a bazillion copies as well. Go figure.
But really, it's not all that hard to understand. Bassist and vocalist Les Claypool's lyrics have always been some of the craftiest around -- and "The Brown Album" proves he hasn't lost his knack for satire. Good luck keeping a
straight face through the opening track, "The Return of Sathington Willoughby," which has lines like "Paranoia is a disease unto itself/and may I add/the person standing next to you/may not be/who they appear to be" or the twisted name-dropping of "Restin' my bones for Johnny Cash/you know I look good in black/ restin' my bones for Elvis/seen him last week at the track" from "Restin' My Bones." The fact that Claypool's nasally whine sounds like Mr. Magoo only adds to the appeal. And the group's sound, though indebted to certain "uncool" Canadian prog-rockers (remember Rush?), does something that those who grew up listening to FM radio can appreciate: It rocks.
It also doesn't hurt that the band, most notably Claypool, can really play. It's Claypool's percussive, rhythmically inventive bass playing that has always been the main hallmark of Primus' sound. In the past, the group's roar was largely due to its drummer, Tim "Herb" Alexander, whose heavy-handed funkiness called to mind Neil Peart sitting in with James Brown's backing band. The big change this time out is that Alexander has been replaced by Brain, a veteran of producer Bill Laswell's various projects, and the new drummer has made a marked difference in the group's sound. Brain, while certainly accomplished, is much more straight-ahead and restrained than his predecessor, which leaves the tracks on the "Brown Album" sounding more like actual songs than heavy funk vamps with weird monologues over them.
"The Brown Album" finds Primus injecting experimental ingredients into their usual stew -- the almost-distorted cello on "Puddin' Taine," the drums on "Restin' My Bones" and "Arnie" that sound like they were recorded from the other side of a gymnasium, but with refreshing results. There's also more room for guitarist Larry LaLonde, whose textural noodling has usually taken a back seat to Claypool's theatrics. Some of the songs, most notably "Golden Boy" and "The Chastizing of Renegade," feature actual guitar riffs as their focal point, and LaLonde's solos stand out more than they have in the past, his screaming break on "Bob's Party Time Lounge" recalling the underrated guitar work of Frank Zappa.
These changes, however, are all relative -- the good news is that the group has managed to keep its eerie, improvisational feel while adding an element of cohesiveness that mostly eluded 1993's "Pork Soda" and 1995's "Tales From the Punchbowl." Maybe it's the new drummer, or a new guitar amplifier,
or a new strain of sensimilla making the rounds in Northern California. Whatever the case, the "Brown Album" is Primus' best, most inspired record in years.